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The City and the Writer: In Cleveland with Sarah Marcus

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Cleveland as you feel/see it?
Cleveland is like being in the heart of a machine. I spent most of my life trying to leave. Growing up, I would have and did do anything to “get out.” It was like that place in a song; the place you get stuck in. Think Tracy Chapman. Gray and backwards, it was a place where people circled the wagons and resisted change. I have been back now since the summer of 2012 after several years “away” in other cities. I have been across the world, and I now see how I was so very wrong about Cleveland. Today’s Cleveland is not confined to the construct of place or the memory of a burning river; Cleveland is the song itself. After a long history of disillusionment and economic collapse, the energy here is bursting at the seams, pushing traditional boundaries. Cleveland’s mood is possibility. It feels like we are always on the verge of something big and things could boil over at any moment. We’ve moved back into the city. Young people are starting families. Despite our scars, we can imagine a new economy. We’re not so cool that you can’t be important here.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
When I was talking to a friend about this, he reminded me that the question was most “heartbreaking” memory, not most “traumatic,” although I seem to have a hard time separating the two. So the most “heartbreaking” memory was the first time I drove past the Ritz-Carlton on West 3rd after ending an engagement and calling off the wedding. It was a frigid, dark Cleveland winter, and the snow was filthy. There was this bride, a beacon of light, getting out of a limo. I remembered the night that past autumn, the moment when I profoundly knew, in my soul, that I couldn’t get married to this person and that I was living a lie. It was quiet except for the tub water running in the bathroom. I was standing in our hotel room, looking out of the huge picture window onto lake Erie. I had finally decided to believe that there had to be something better . . . that this couldn’t be it. I knew I was brave enough to let go. Somehow the memory of the moment was more heartbreaking than the moment itself, because back then, I couldn’t have possibly known the pain, brokenness, and rebuilding that was to follow.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
Cleveland is a place where you witness a stunning sunset over the lake in one direction, and in the other, you can see gritty, piping postindustrial smoke stacks. Two worlds simultaneously existing. Manufactured and natural at once. There is an effort toward revival here. I have the incredible opportunity to work at an urban high school in East Cleveland where my students find the strength to rise above, often, hellacious circumstances to get themselves to school and above that, participate in our corporate work-study program, where they are employed once a week. Even in the most devastated, impoverished, abandoned places, there is hope and inspiration for those who are able to transcend fear.

What writer(s) from here should we read?
Famous for distributing “obscene” poetry to minors in the sixties, d. a. levy was Cleveland’s token beat poet. Langston Hughes was famously born in Cleveland, and his house seems to forever be for sale.

We are blessed with a genuinely diverse and vibrant group of writers in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, too many to name here! Recently, I’ve been enjoying Sarah Gridley, Alissa Nutting, Miles Budimir, Phil Metres, R.A. Washington, Thrity Umrigar as well as an incredible group of local small presses. John Burrough’s Crisis Chronicles Press just published my chapbook “Every Bird, To You.” There is a strong sense of purpose within the performance scene. We are lucky; there are often several readings each week, sometimes even on the same night.

Is there a place here you return to often?
You forget that there’s a city. The Cleveland Metroparks System has more than 22,000 acres of nature preserves in the “Emerald Necklace." I’m especially fond of the North and South Chagrin Reservations. Whether I was searching for crayfish in the river as a child, horseback riding, cross-country skiing Chapin Forest, or falling in love with the birds on the bridges over the marshlands, the parks and their wildlife have been a constant throughout my life.

I ran away there. I learned to (illegally) drive there. It’s where we hid out as teens to drink and smoke in the woods. As an adult, I got to heal there. On the trails we get to explore not only the awe-inspiring natural landscape, but how to be a friend, to talk to God, and to unearth revival.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Cleveland has a long history of being on the cutting edge of education. We boast four major research universities. I think the Tremont neighborhood that surrounds Lincoln Park is an especially welcoming literary gem with street names like “Literary,” “Professor,” and “University.” We continue to embrace the independent spirit with awesome bookstores like Tremont’s Visible Voice Books, R.A. Washington’s Guide To Kulchur: Text, Art, and News, and Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
There are cities within cities within cities. That’s the magic. You can recreate yourself on each street. There’s the boutique, gallery, stone building charm of Little Italy. There’s the bohemian echo and progressive, forward-thinking art scene surrounding the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) and the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in University Circle. There’s the hipster, hobo-sheik Instagram-foodies of Ohio City. But, there are other realities, too. There are places that have been forgotten, or worse, intentionally abandoned. Take Hough, for example, one of our oldest and poorest neighborhoods. This version of our city still suffers the consequences of being the nucleus of mid-twentieth-century race riots. Riddled with abandoned houses and condemned buildings, the poverty and violence is devastating. The social and economic inequity is paralyzing.

Where does passion live here?
We’re at a turning point where we have the opportunity to cultivate a culture where people are accepting of the unknown and are interested in the act of exploring new experiences. This excitement is palpable and is evidenced by our thriving art scene and by places that help us reinvest and create meaning, like MOCA and all the other modern, contemporary institutions that help us honor history in a way that doesn’t keep us stagnant.

People want to talk to you about Cleveland. They want to tell you about the buildings. They want to meet at West Side Market (our oldest publicly owned market) for brunch. They want you to go to the flea market and support public theater projects. We love our local bands and artists. We are tragically loyal sports fans. We want people to know that we’re grassroots, but we can be glamorous, too. Our orchestra is one of the “big five” and our playhouse was America's first professional regional theatre.

What is the title of one of your poems about Cleveland and what inspired it exactly?

The kind editors at BODY published my poem, “Architecture in Cleveland,” about the heartbreak I mentioned earlier. This poem was part of the process of documenting failure. It’s about returning to something broken despite knowing better. It was inspired by imprisonment (literal and figurative) and our desire to connect with each other, to love deeper, to become something that matters.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Cleveland does an outside exist?”

I think Clevelanders are intensely aware of the outside; endless defense is exhausting. We have winter. Real winter. We might appear to be a maze of endless hospitals to an outsider, but if you make it past the threshold, the Cleveland spirit will lure you in. It’s an unspoken understanding among us that our Midwestern grace is to be protected, treasured like a jewel. I think we should be asking, “How can we get inside?” I think it’s much warmer than we expect.


Sarah Marcus is the author of Backcountry (2013, Finishing Line Press) and Every Bird, To You (2013, Crisis Chronicles Press). Her other work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney's, Cimarron Review, CALYX Journal, Spork, Nashville Review, Slipstream, Tidal Basin Review, and Cold Mountain Review, among others. She is a guest blogger for So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art and a Count Coordinator for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She holds an MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and currently teaches and writes in Cleveland, OH.

Published Mar 27, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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